Eric Ragno is name that you will be hearing a lot from in the future. In fact, if you’ve been paying close attention just this past year, you would know Eric has appeared on albums by and played live with the likes of Steve Grimmett from GRIM REAPER, David Readman of PINK CREAM 69, Ted Poley of DANGER, DANGER, AMERICAN ANGEL, MARTIE PETERS GROUP and more. He’s even appeared on cable television with what some might call the “proverbial” fifteen minutes of fame (more like seconds in this case!) with his appearance on the Style Network program “Clean House”!
Eric is certainly a talented keyboard player and he’s slated to have no letdown in his busy schedule in 2008. So check out what Eric had to say as he recently sat down with Rockeyez to fill us in on all he’s doing at the moment. And by the looks of it I somehow feel like those fifteen minutes of fame is going to end up being a whole lot longer…
Mark Balogh: Eric I have to start off by thanking you for taking some time out of your ever so busy schedule to sit down and talk with us here at Rockeyez.com. It certainly is appreciated; so let’s get on with the questions…
One quick look at your websites (www.ericragno.com and www.keyboardplayer.net) and they show that you are one busy guy! I had the pleasure of meeting you at the melodicrock.com 10th anniversary show in South Bend, IN and you said you were soon off to the Firefest IV show in the UK as a member of Steve Grimmett’s (ex-GRIM REAPER) band. Can you fill us in a little on those two recent activities?
Eric Ragno: Hey Mark! As you say, it’s been a busy year! And I’m sorry for the delay in this interview! After Firefest, I tried to slow down a bit and adjust back to normal life. Both festivals were amazing experiences, and it was so great to put faces to the screen names! For the MR Fest, I was invited to play with the MARTIE PETERS GROUP, a great band out of Denmark. At Firefest I performed with Steve Grimmett & his guys in England, playing songs off the new album (that we released that same weekend!), along with some GRIM REAPER and LIONSHEART classics. And right before the MR Fest I flew to New Jersey to play a blowout record release party with AMERICAN ANGEL for their new disc, “Vanity”. So I needed a break!
I’ve been on tours before where you rehearse a set of music with people you know, and play that same set repeatedly. But the past two months were a bit different. I’d spend ten days programming my synths and learning an hour’s worth of new material. I’d pack my gear, get on a plane and rehearse with a group of guys I’d never met in person… while jet lagged! This would be followed by an amazing show, where I got to meet some outstanding fans! Then I’d get back on the plane and start all over again – new music, new bands, new locale. After three back-to-back rounds of this, I needed some away time from music just to unwind.
Mark Balogh: On your website (www.ericragno.com) you have a great “diary” of your involvement with the melodicrock.com show in South Bend, IN. You mention you were there a few days prior to the show to get prepared and so you must have been involved with or at least witnessed some of the preparation that Andrew went through. Can you share a little about the experience in what it took to bring so many great musicians together for this awesome event?
Eric Ragno: The show was a lot of work, and I know it wasn’t an easy thing for Andrew McNeice to coordinate all this from the other side of the world. But people lined up to help. Andrew’s site has struck a real chord with both rock fans and the music industry. He’s created an instrument that has given our careers a much-needed shot in the arm, while also giving the fans a place to congregate and build on this genre. So when someone like that asks you to come to a small town in Indiana and celebrate 10 years of MelodicRock.com, people quickly line up. Guys like Jim Peterik (SURVIVOR), Joe Vana (MECCA), Mike Eden (EDEN’S CURSE) - they really gave of themselves to make this event special, far more than anyone may ever know. It was a thrill to show up with that mindset of “what can I do to help out Andrew”… and then to meet guys like Jack Blades (NIGHT RANGER) who kept repeating “whatever we can do to help out Andrew”… down to Kim the t-shirt girl (who is so much more btw) who missed the majority of the show, just to help the cause. I may be getting too touchy-feely here, but you were there too! You could feel a spirit of camaraderie that was very strong throughout the MR Fest, from the top on down to the bottom.
And as for Andrew, he rented a bus to transport the bands around, there were hotels and flights to coordinate and to Andrew’s credit, he put a lot of care into everything. He knew the respect that these guys were showing him, and he gave it back tenfold. There was no detail too small – the poor guy hardly got to see any of the show! And at this show, you would sit down to have dinner and find yourself sitting next to Kelly Keagy or Joe Lynn Turner ! I spent most of the gig watching from the wings standing next toJoe or Jimi Jamison as they waited for their turn to get onstage. It was definitely not your typical rock gig.
Mark Balogh: Back to Eric Ragno ’s early days for a minute. Your website (www.ericragno.com) tells of how you played in a band with your parents while you were a teenager! Can you tell us a bit about that and also tell us what kind of childhood you had prior to the music? Did you like school? Were you into sports? All that type of stuff.
Eric Ragno: My folks formed EQUINOX , a well-known New Jersey band that played original music. They used to bring me on tour before I was old enough to start school and in the summers also. I would help any way I could – loading mic stands, working the lights, until I earned my spot on stage. I was performing at colleges while I was a sophomore in high school. There weren’t a lot of musicians in my town; most of the kids were into sports. While those guys were watching football games, I would read rock magazines and write songs in my room.
Mark Balogh: When you’re not in the studio or on the road, what are some of the things you enjoy away from the music business?
Eric Ragno: I have no life! (LOL) But when I’m home I try to spend time with my kids, they are both awesome. I moved my parents out to LA in ’99. I’m away often so I try to make every minute count with the people that I love.
Mark Balogh: According to your website, you originally started out behind a drum kit. How did you get started playing the keyboard?
Eric Ragno: My mom was a keyboard player and singer so there were electric pianos and synths in nearly every room of the house. And I loved it. I started as a drummer because the band needed a drummer… and I was pretty good at the time! But I couldn’t convey my song ideas using a drum. I bought a keyboard just to fool around with really, and all those early lessons & practicing suddenly just kicked in. I used to focus strictly on sound textures, but my dad drilled all kinds of theory into my head. So I became a solid piano player, and my drum chops turned to shit. But I still program the drums for all my demos. ;)
Mark Balogh: On a bit of a personal note... One of your early bands was local New Jersey act AMAZING GRACE . I actually used to see them quite often as fellow Rockeyez writer David Felix used to write for Rough Mix magazine in NJ. I would go along with Dave to a lot of their shows so I’m sure we ran into each other at some point! Can you share some of your times from those early days in NJ before, during and after the AMAZING GRACE period when you were playing the local circuit?
Eric Ragno: Oh, man, the glory days of 80’s rock! I heard that AMAZING GRACE was looking for a keyboard player, so I went to see them live and I was blown away. I auditioned a week later, and two weeks after that I was on stage opening for WINGER, SLAUGHTER, LIVING COLOUR, HEAVEN’S EDGE, TYKETTO…so many great acts. And the music with this band was awesome. I was very much into Jersey rock and loved performing up and down the coast with a road crew in tow. But it also took me out of my comfort zone. I was accustomed to being close with my band mates – literally like family. I went into this band not knowing anyone, and now we’re on the road experiencing all the best and worst together. I learned a lot that would carry me through my career, and I still talk to almost all of them. Lisa St. Ann had a great solo career for a while; she had two albums out before she quit the business. Chris Tristram went on to play bass for a few well-known groups, and I see him in LA from time to time. And Kevin O’Brien ultimately changed his name and has played drums with some big names in metal.
Mark Balogh: I next want to ask you about some of the projects you’ve been working on more recently. We can start with local NJ “legends” AMERICAN ANGEL. You recorded with them on their new album “Vanity”; but listening to the record it seems a lot of your work got lost in the mix. How did you come to work with them and what are your overall feelings on the finished product?
Eric Ragno: Coming up in Jersey, everyone wanted to break out like AMERICAN ANGEL did. Huge crowds, airplay and MTV videos – that’s what it was all about, and only the best and luckiest Jersey bands got those breaks. Coming in to do the AMERICAN ANGEL “comeback” record was like a kid’s fantasy come true. Rocco Fury has his own unique sound, and his voice immediately pulls you in. I’ve been good friends with the guys in XENON for around 10 years now (another great Jersey band) and I flew in to see them play together at a club over Thanksgiving. AA opened the show and sounded a bit loose. I introduced myself to Rocco and said man, if you ever decide to record a full album let me know. It turns out the band was demo’ing songs for a new album, “Vanity”. Rocco flew to LA a month later to discuss his ideas - he had a solid vision and it included a LOT of keyboards and textures. As a longtime fan, I voiced my concern that fans were gonna revolt over all these new keyboards, but hell I was pumped - so I worked long nights and sent him mixes and the band loved everything.
So… LOL …I was pretty shocked when I heard the initial album mixes. Most of my parts were either mixed way down or completely gone. I bitched about it a bit; I mean I was asked to put a lot of work into this. Rocco finally stepped in and halted production until we came up with a happy medium. But my gut reaction was correct; too many keyboards would have killed the sound. When I listen to the end result, it sounds like a classic AMERICAN ANGEL album. Just because I get all these JOURNEY comparisons doesn’t mean that everything I do should necessarily sound like a JOURNEY record. :)
Mark Balogh: While talking with you at the melodicrock.com show in South Bend, IN you mentioned you were working with Danny Vaughn (TYKETTO). Can you share a little bit about that?
Eric Ragno: My good friend and producer Fabrizio Grossi tapped me for this one. It’s a follow-up to Danny’s side project called “From the Inside”. Fab & I put together a group of songs and Danny came up with lyrics & vocal melodies, and sings on the album. Rounding it out is Jimi Bell (HOUSE OF LORDS) and Peter Lobo, an amazing session drummer here in LA who played with me in Dawn Robinson’s (EN VOGUE) band among others. I finished my last parts for this album once I got home from Firefest. I got to hang with Danny at that show which was a trip. The album should be in the can by the time you read this.
Mark Balogh: You have also been working on a new project named CHINA BLUE where you’re partnered with singer Tony Mills (TNT, ex-SHY), guitarist Josh Ramos (ex-THE STORM), bassist Fabrizio Grossi (STEVE VAI) and drummer Zane Peterson (CONDITIONED RESPONSE). Please tell us a little bit about the progress of this band and when we might see the release of a record.
Eric Ragno: This album is my baby, and it has continued to evolve since I started writing it two years ago with my friend Michael Riesenbeck. There have been some ups and downs, but we’ve got a solid lineup now and we are on target to finish the record before the end of the year. I’ve gotten some help from bassist Doug Odell (CRUNCH, TNA), who I met onstage at the MR Fest, and later partied with at Firefest. I’ve also got Ron Smith (XENON) playing rhythm guitars, so I’ve been infused with some East Coast energy to get this wrapped up! We’ve got a solid deal on the table that we are finalizing this week.
Mark Balogh: Now onto your recent live work. At the show in South Bend you played not only with the Melodicrock.com All Stars but you also played with the MARTIE PETERS GROUP. Can you give us a little background on how the Melodicrock.com All Stars came about and also how you hooked up with Martie Peters?
Eric Ragno: Well the Martie Peters thing was what came first. I saw the festival’s lineup and checked out the sound clips for the bands I didn’t know. Martie Peters was the one group who seemed to really fit in with the bigger bands, I mean they are truly melodic rock, and Martie himself had four previous albums with the band PUSH in his native Denmark. I wrote Martie a note just telling him that I admired his music, and offered to help in any way I could. As the show came closer, Martie invited me to play keyboards at the show. They arrived the night before the show, so they brought a case of beer into my room and I ran through my ideas for the show. We had a blast and we’re talking about the possibility of a U.S. tour.
The All-Star thing was a little different! As you know, there were two acts that withdrew from the lineup at the last minute. There was pressure to fill these gaps, and while everyone got to play slightly expanded sets there was still the need for an opening act – something that Andrew dubbed the Melodicrock.com All Stars. I received a call from Mike Eden – someone I know casually, again through Andrew’s message boards. Mike said we needed to put a band together - with only one week remaining and no rehearsals at all. Mike & I were both already going to be there, and now needed to find others who would make the ultimate commitment. I started making calls – I called a LOT of people. Some were already booked elsewhere, some couldn’t get a flight – and some were just assholes. I was shocked at some of the people that passed on this! But it’s a scary thing, and if you fail you know it’s going to be talked about. We finally found John Parker (TALON),Vic Rivera (Poley/Rivera, CRUNCH) and Doug Odell (CRUNCH, TNA), all who were willing to fly in at their own expense to help make this happen.
The set came off pretty well, although admittedly there were some bruises (which were well documented in Rockeyez own review). But that’s rock and roll. You take five semi-known guys from five cities, you give them a set of songs and introduce them to each other an hour before show time. It was the ultimate rock and roll experiment, and when you judge it like that it was pretty damn cool. And we’ve all stayed in good touch – what a great bunch of guys! I would work with all of them again in a heartbeat!
Mark Balogh: You also played with the STEVE GRIMMETT BAND (ex-GRIM REAPER, LIONSHEART) at the Firefest IV show in the UK. How did you come to work with them?
Eric Ragno: I was contacted by Steve’s drummer/producer Pete Newdeck, who found me through my work with Paul Logue on the David Readman album. Pete was had some specific keyboard ideas in mind, and then he let me loose! The album went so fast; Pete really made it easy for me. When Firefest came around, they invited me to come to the U.K. to play the songs live, along with some classic GRIM REAPER & LIONSHEART tunes. It was a special moment to be standing next to Steve playing “See You in Hell” with all those fists flying up in the crowd! I love the European audiences! Steve took me out for fish & chips & mushy peas, while Pete took me to the various pubs around England.)
Mark Balogh: Now back to your studio work. You did some recent recording with Ted Poley (DANGER DANGER) for his new release “Smile”? Can you tell us about that and do you have any future plans to work with Ted?
Eric Ragno: Oh, man I love Ted! I came in at the tail end of that record. Ted had about 30 days to present the label with a finished product, and wanted me to add some sparkle. He just fed me the songs one at a time and would occasionally offer some direction. After the first two songs, he’d just say, “you know what to do – just do it!” He really gave me free reign and man this album was so friggin easy… I mean there is so much melody it wasn’t any work at all. As soon as I’d send the tracks over to JK Northrup (who produced the album and played guitar) he would have a mix done the next day. The album was completely finished literally 30 days after I met Ted. And what a great guy! He called a lot just to get to know me, something people just don’t do anymore. I’d work with the guy again in a heartbeat.
Mark Balogh: You also did some work recently with singer David Readman (PINK CREAM 69) on his fantastic new solo album. Can you tell us about the part you played in that record?
Eric Ragno: I met David at ProgPower in 2005 when I got offstage with D.C. Cooper. Coincidentally all the free beer was backstage! …. So PINK CREAM 69 was playing the following night. I LOVE that band; David’s voice is so unique. A few months later he was recording his first disc when his keyboard player got tied up. David invited me on board and I jumped at the chance! I had a lot of piano ideas and some synth textures and his producer Dennis Ward used them all. So I was pretty excited about that.
Mark Balogh: Will you be doing any touring with any of the recent projects you’ve been working on?
Eric Ragno: I sure hope so. It would be a real shame if that didn’t happen. You leave that in the hands of the record companies and the fans. There’s some talk of bringing the STEVE GRIMMETT BAND over to the States, and I really hope that happens. I love the chance to travel & play in front of new audiences.
Mark Balogh: I have to admit I’ve only heard samples of another one of your bands, VOX TEMPUS, on your website but I like what I’ve heard. The sound is very progressive (ala DREAM THEATER) yet the songs are melodic. Can you tell us a little bit about that band and its place in your career thus far?
Eric Ragno: I joined VOX TEMPUS when they were still called EQUINOX – the same band name my family was using when I first started out. They had a debut album that charted well in Japan, and I had just wrapped up my first TAKARA record with Jeff Scott Soto, which was doing well on the same charts. I wanted to find a situation that would showcase more of my chops, and again the EQUINOX name really drew me in. Sadly we had to change the name to VOX TEMPUS after replacing the drummer with Gregg Bissonette. I had a lot of input into that album; I wrote a lot and really stretched out as a keyboard player. We recently signed a new deal with Angel Milk Records in Europe, who is releasing their re-mastered version of the disc in 2008. The album never got proper distribution overseas so I’m looking forward to seeing it get a fair shot! Andy at Angel Milk is a firm supporter of the band, and has proposed some interesting things for the future that we hope to explore.
Mark Balogh: You worked with veteran guitarist Jack Frost (SEVEN WITCHES, ex-SAVATAGE) on both his SEVEN WITCHES and solo recordings and even recorded a live DVD with SEVEN WITCHES. How did that all come about
Eric Ragno: Believe it or not, Jack & I were friends since high school… we grew up about five blocks from one another. I’ve got some great video of his first show at his high school, a battle of the bands that we both played in. I didn’t even know Jack had gone pro until I read that he had joined SAVATAGE. I thought I’d catch him at the LA show on 9/11/01, but it was abruptly cancelled after the terrorist attacks. I finally ran into him at the NAMM show years later, and we spent a lot of time catching up and partying with the rock stars – that’s what you do at NAMM. That and jamming – we did a lot of that during those NAMM shows. We found we had chemistry, and he wanted to translate that to his albums. I was afraid his fans would eat me for breakfast, but Jack was committed to the process. That impressed me, and I worked hard to hold up my end. I did some pre-production for “Year of the Witch”, and recorded/arranged three songs each for “Amped”, the live DVD and Jack’s solo album “Out in the Cold”. It’s some pretty diverse stuff and I’m proud of it.
Jack and I have gotten busy in our respective genres, so our paths don’t cross like they used to. I just spoke with him last week and he’s very pumped about this new WITCHES record! We’ve had some ups and downs, like everybody does with a lifelong friend. He has helped me understand things about the business, and about myself too – only a real friend will give it to you straight. So whatever crazy shit happens, he has always got my respect.
Mark Balogh: With all you’ve done recently do you have any more future projects in the works that you can share with us at this time?
Eric Ragno: I’ve got some exciting new things on the horizon, but it’s all in the early stages. I can tell you that 2008 will be just as busy as 2007 was! The debut from Ramos/Hugo will hopefully be out shortly. I wrote this album with Josh Ramos (THE STORM) and we brought in Hugo Valenti (VALENTINE) to sing on it. It’s one of my favorite projects so far, but it has suffered delays. This month I’m working on the upcoming solo albums from Michael Bormann (ex-JADED HEART), Tony Mills (TNT, CHINA BLUE) and a new project for Frontiers. You can always read about the latest on my blog at www.ericragno.com
Mark Balogh: Eric, you’ve worked with so many talented musicians over the years. Is there anybody you’d especially like to work if you had the opportunity?
Eric Ragno: That’s a hard call man. I would love to work with Steve Perry, if he would just come out of his cave! Guys like Robert Plant too. I read your new interview with Kevin Chalfant, there’s a guy with a voice! Steve Lukather is amazing too; it would be great to collaborate with him on something in the New Year.
Mark Balogh: Taking the last question a step further; if you could assemble a “dream group” with yourself on keys. Who would you like playing around you?
Eric Ragno: HAHAHA I’ve got a dream group I’ve assembled! It’s called CHINA BLUE! Check it out at. I know it sounds like a cop-out answer but my dream right now is to get that band onstage at festivals. Each guy has his own legacy and brings his A-game to the table.
Mark Balogh: Time for a little word association game. I’ll throw some words, dates and names at you and you could give me your thoughts on them.
- 1989 - on the road with AMAZING GRACE. The best of times and the worst of times. We thought that kind of rock music would last forever. I wish I would have taken time to enjoy it more
- TAKARA - The band that introduced me to the AOR community, and to Jeff Scott Soto. We did some great work together. I left shortly after Jeff did, although I’ve popped in to help out from time to time. (TAKARA mainman/guitarist) Neal Grusky plucked me out of a club to join this band, and I will always respect him for that.
- EQUINOX (circa 1983) - This will always be one of the happiest times of my life. We made two videos you know, right around the time MTV was starting out. I love my dad, and when you have something like music to share you bond on a higher, deeper level. Kids look up to their dads and want to follow in their footsteps, and I treat my success as a tribute to his tutelage. He still guides me with my career decisions to this day. I can’t tell you how good it feels to give him a new CD I’ve worked on, and to watch him open it with pride and put it on.
- Ted Leonard - OMG Ted is an amazing guy! His sound is unique and unmatched. I watched him sing the National Anthem at a (San Francisco) Giants game – amazing! I was supposed to play on his new solo record but we just couldn’t work out the scheduling. I am close with the guys in ENCHANT, they have all been great friends at every level. I did some commentary on their live DVD, and they were in LA when I announced I was getting married. They gave me hell on that one!
- www.melodicrock.com - Andrew McNiece is the savior of melodic rock. I joined TAKARA eleven years ago, around the same time that most folks first got Internet access. I didn’t realize that there was a mass of hard rock fans out there scattered around the web on mailing lists and random newsgroups. MR.com helped to polarize this and unite this massive rock fan base. Andrew really earned my respect, especially this year – and I will always honor that.
- Jersey City, NJ - My hometown, a five-minute ride from New York City. When Frost and I lived there, the Jersey City Heights used to be this cool rock and roll town where guys would drive their Trans-Am’s up and down the avenue blasting VAN HALEN and FOREIGNER, and you would pick up beautiful girls from the neighborhood with their hair teased to the sky! The Heights is run down now, it’s filled with teen gangs and violence… and 99 cent stores. And now Downtown Jersey City has become very upscale, even Trump is building a tower there. When I visit the JC Heights now it is such a heartbreak. You always miss home, but man I am glad I moved my family to LA.
- Keytar - The innovative new instrument with the bad throwback name! The Williams Keytar is a keyboard instrument that is more of a guitar than a keyboard. You just fret the notes with a keyboard instead of a neck. I’ve been their main endorsee and poster boy for this innovative instrument for a few years now. Those guys have been very good to me; I just wish they had named it something else. I still get calls from video production companies who needs a keytar for a video or commercial. Last month it was for Snoop Dog. Can you believe that?
- D.C. Cooper - I haven’t heard from D.C. in a few months now… we were going to write his new album together and we lost touch. D.C. ’s day job is an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) and he has been doing a lot of heroic things lately in his hometown… it’s on the news and on the web if you know where to find it. I saw him in San Francisco in May and thanked him for his heroism; because I’m a real wuss and wouldn’t have the balls to do the things he has done… rescuing people from fires and stuff. We did one great show together at ProgPower with no rehearsal – again I met him an hour before the show started! Great, easy going guy with a powerful voice. I’d love to finish that record man!
- 2007 - Man, this has been a powerful year! I’m a little bummed that it’s over to be honest. I’m proud of what I’ve done this year… I’ve recorded a lot, I released a lot and I played some landmark shows with some of my favorite bands. I decided at the top of this year that I was gonna keep on pushing – I’m not gonna stop. I’m gonna keep working at my craft, keep practicing and creating new sounds and helping my favorite artists pop out the kind of records that fans like us want to hear again! If you want good music you have to be ready to work for it!
Mark Balogh: I guess that’s about it. Is there anything you’d like to add, mention, promote or just say before we let you go?
Eric Ragno: Yes… thanks for doing your part too man. You’ve got a great site and I enjoyed meeting you guys in South Bend. We need more supporters of this music and I’m grateful to everyone who is in the trenches working for it. Come visit my site at www.keyboardplayer.net and join me for the ride!
Mark Balogh: Again, it’s been a great pleasure to talk with youEric and I wish you continued success and good look in your career. I wish all the best to you and your family and look forward to meeting you again in the future.
Eric Ragno: Thanks! Stay in touch!